PULLING UP 'ANCHOR'
Soon An Ailing Special Tree Can No Longer Mark Special Place for a Young Son
By Pamela Perkins
The Commercial Appeal
It's a bright warm morning as Jeffrey Smith, 8, jumps out of a golf cart and dashes to one of his favorite places. His special swing is there, hanging from his special tree. And, the special place, his mother said, is his "anchor." Jeffrey's father is there. He is buried near the doomed American holly tree; laid to rest under a rust-colored river rock as his marker at Historic Elmwood Cemetery. In a few seconds young Jeffrey is kicking dust, pushing himself as high as he can on the homemade, wood-and-rope swing.
"It has thinned a lot since this spring. . . . A lot of the limbs are gone," said the boy's mother, Margaret Smith, during a visit Thursday to the gravesite after a recent vacation. The visits to Jeff's grave have become a ritual for her and young Jeffrey.
"Every time, he gravitates toward that swing," she said, before her exuberant little boy jumps from the swing to the tree and starts climbing. It may be hard to realize the tree is dying while watching the child scrambling in it. But the city's oldest active cemetery recently called his mother to say that the aged American holly had to come down.
Margaret said the tree "makes coming back to visit Jeff a very happy experience. . . . It's a connection to his dad."
"I wish he were still alive," Jeffrey said. "I really miss him."
The tree is among a yet undetermined number in the cemetery's 800-tree collection that have deteriorated to the point they must be removed.
"We are in the early stages of planning a reforestation project," said Fran Catmur, the nonprofit cemetery's executive director.
She did say that the approximately 250 Magnolia grandiflora and American holly trees, many of which are deteriorating, are candidates for removal.
"Not to say we're gonna take every one of them down. . . . We will be judiciously thinning them because some are in very fragile condition," she said. Elmwood's tree collection represents 63 species. She said many of the cemetery's oldest trees pre-date the cemetery's 1852 establishment.
The cemetery was founded during a rural cemetery movement, Catmur said, set up about 2 1/2 miles from the town of Memphis.
"There are a lot of trees that don't make it past 100 to 120 years," said Dr. Scott Franklin, an assistant professor of biology who specializes in plant ecology.
"They get the same way we do, actually. They'll reach an age where they can't tolerate things the way they used to. So diseases take them more easily."
A limb from young Jeffrey's holly snapped off in a recent storm. The tree is one of Elmwood's 11 state and county champion trees. The number of champions has dropped from 15 since 1988 due to old age, Catmur said.
"Champions don't last long, that's typical. Because once you're a champion you're pretty darn old," said Franklin.
The gnarled holly's trunk has the exaggerated contour of a muscular arm. Its limbs reach up then out or out then up to the sky. Much of the bark is peeled off the trunk, exposing the tree's flesh. If it wasn't for the heat of summer, the tree's naked twigs could make one think it was wintertime. The holly is nothing like many Elmwood trees topped with thick bolls of green.
The cemetery received a $15,000 grant in 1996 to do an arboreal study in which the cemetery's trees were identified and evaluated. In 1998, about 400 trees were labeled. Catmur said the reforestation project is "the next logical step." The goal is to remove the damaged trees - many of which are ornamental like the holly and magnolia.
Franklin said ornamentals were probably used "because they're a fast-growing species. And, generally, fast-growing species are short-lived."
The cemetery in turn will expand its collection of hardwood trees, such as oak, maple and sassafras. And "maybe elms," Catmur said. Maybe elms?
But it's Elmwood cemetery. She said elms are subject to Dutch elm disease, a fungal disease that can kill a large elm in four to eight weeks. Cemetery officials want hardwoods because they live longer and grow to be "great big" shade trees, Catmur said.
The hardwoods would be moved into the cemetery "as mature as can be," she added. Since the reforestation effort is in its early developmental stage, Catmur doesn't know how much the project will cost. Nor does she know how long it will take.
"It's going to be an expensive project," she said. She added the deteriorated trees will be moved for safety reasons and "to preserve the integrity of the arboretum as an educational facility."
The holly and magnolia trees are pretty common, she added. The cemetery is seeking an arborist to help assess and devise a long-term plan for the program. Meanwhile, Catmur is not sure when Jeffrey's tree will come down. But his mother plans to make a few special trips there before it and the swing are removed.
The first time Jeffrey sat in the swing was during his father's graveside service. Jeffrey Wellington Smith, 52, an architect and award-winning toy designer, died of cancer when his namesake was 5 - it was the day before Valentine's Day 1997.
On Valentine's Day, Margaret wondered aloud to Todd Fox, Elmwood's superintendent for 16 years, if there was any way to make the burial services easier for her son. Fox, also a dad, suggested putting the swing in the tree. There are no other swings in the cemetery, he said.
"I lightly said it," he said. But the next thing he remembers is young Jeffrey's mother saying, "Oh, could you?"
So he bought a board, bolts and rope, fashioned the swing, and hung it from the tree. During the service the next day, a friend pushed Jeffrey in his swing as the pastor blessed it.
"We got to find a way to replace your swing, baby," said Margaret to her son, who sat in her lap back in the cemetery office.
"Really!" agreed the child. Catmur said an option is to temporarily hang the swing from a wooden T-shaped structure until another tree is found.
"I want a nice big tree that Jeffrey's kids can play on," Margaret said.